One contradiction of the digital era is that, while it’s become easier to make and distribute music, it’s also more difficult to earn a living doing it. Artists must accept the extremely low rates that streaming platforms like Spotify and YouTube pay for their songs. What does the future look like for garage bands? And will stronger enforcement of copyright protection help?
Bruce Berman, host of the “Understanding IP Matters” podcast, sought out musician, serial entrepreneur, university instructor and intellectual property advocate, David Lowery, to find out in Episode 4 of Season 2 of “Understanding IP Matters.”
Lowery is a mathematician, writer, musician, producer and serial entrepreneur. He is also the lead singer for two rock bands he founded decades ago and still tours with, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. Lowery has written more than 300 songs and his groups are responsible for more than 15 albums and four gold records.
He holds a Ph.D. and teaches the business of music at the University of Georgia. He is critical of streaming services like Pandora radio for shorting writers on royalties. He calculates that he earns less than $17 from 1 million streams of his song, “Low,” less than what he makes from a single t-shirt.
In 2017, Lowery settled a class action lawsuit he had initiated against Spotify for unpaid royalties. As part of the settlement, Spotify agreed to establish a fund worth over $40 million to compensate songwriters and publishers. The New York Times said that “Lowery has come to represent the anger of musicians in the digital age.” He says he has nothing against streaming services, he just wants to make sure they pay musicians and songwriters.
You started your first band, Camper Van Beethoven, in Santa Cruz in 1983. What was life like for a band pre-Internet?
“That was interesting because it was very difficult to find out information on things like copyright and public performance rights’ organizations that manage the public performance aspect of copyright. People ask me why I’m a member of the songwriter’s organization BMI and not the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). And the story is that, a lot of times, you used to get these forms or get this information from going to the public library and asking the librarian. We had a pretty good librarian in Santa Cruz, and so she knew what forms we should take. But she was all out of the ASCAP form, so I had to join BMI. [Doing research] was literally going to a library and if you were lucky, you had a good librarian.”
Leading performers like Beyonce and Rihanna, for example, benefit from visibility they’re paid minimally for, such as on YouTube. They have the leverage, however. They can negotiate separate deals with some of the streaming services that other acts can’t. How has that affected the music business?
“If you look at the overall rates for all the sources of streaming per song, you’ll see that YouTube is the lowest, partly because they benefit from the DMCA safe harbor provisions, whereby your track can go up and it can stay up and people can watch it until you tell YouTube to take it down. It can go right back up again though. So, basically, most small artists have given up trying to police their works on YouTube. And even when they do, you’re opting into a licensing scheme that pays you very, very little.”
Is the environment worse today for small acts than when vinyl record sales and CDs were the media of choice and groups relied on record company advances, or is it better today?
“Creatively it’s better, because gatekeepers going away was helpful. But I think that largely it’s a much worse environment for most performers and songwriters.
If you were a niche artist, you essentially had pricing control over how much you wanted to sell your vinyl for. You didn’t have to discount it. You could not release singles and just sell albums. In that way you could kind of adjust the price and how you released your products to sort of cover your fixed costs, which you can’t really do today because everybody gets the same rate from streaming services.”
Listen to this episode to hear more of Lowery’s perspective on the music business today, including
- Why non-ensemble acts are so popular today;
- How the risk and revenue sharing structure of record labels benefitted smaller acts;
- The challenges and opportunities that the contradictions of the digital era present for artists;
- The history of popular artists like Sonny Bono and Taylor Swift advocating on behalf of smaller acts;
- And what copyright advocates learned from the failures of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.
Join the Discussion
7 comments so far.
AnonNovember 4, 2022 01:13 pm
It appears that entering a second comment “pushes” both through.
AnonNovember 4, 2022 01:12 pm
Response caught (even with new server)….
AnonNovember 4, 2022 01:12 pm
My favorite part (part 2):
“There are winners and losers in any economy. Those who can’t figure out how to monetize non-scarce resources will perish, and a new creative class will be born from their ashes. Our job is not to preserve the cultural trappings of a bygone era. We are the heralds of a new society, built on innovation, freedom and self-reliance.”
“Sadly, there are indeed some creators wedded to antiquated notions of exclusive ownership under which they would deny access to their works. They will have to evolve to meet the conditions of the new environment which recognizes common threads underlying our creativity. After all, is anything truly original? Doesn’t every work build off the works that preceded it? We are living in a time of post-scarcity, and are witnessing the last gasps of the dinosaurs trying desperately to hang onto the scarcity that made them relevant. [Editor’s Note: This too was followed by a rather triumphant SV-to-SV high five]”
Reminds me of, “You will own nothing and like it.”
Neil TurkewitzNovember 3, 2022 03:50 pm
Well said David. A few years ago, I wrote a parody of a “Social Media Baron” who believed that eliminating distribution costs meant that digital goods should be free. In my parody, my fictitious baron said:
“We are pioneers in releasing the works of creators from the world of artificial scarcity in which they languished for so long?—?held prisoner by evil for-profit gatekeepers seeking to artificially increase rents from what are inherently non-rivalrous goods.”
David NewhoffNovember 3, 2022 11:12 am
Music is not a “digital good.” Its value to the listener is fundamentally the same as it was 30 years ago or 100 years ago. Its cost to produce is a) irrelevant in this context; and b) not diminished by virtue of allegedly “free” distribution models.
The idea that distribution changes the value of the thing being distributed is a fiction conjured by (surprise) folks in the current distribution business–in this case a distributor who makes no investment in production.
So, “fair” would be a price to the producer that is commensurate with the value he is providing to the distributor and, by extension, to the distributor’s customer. Hostility toward the sustainability of the music creator is both cynical and self-defeating because the next Lowery won’t be able to to produce music you would otherwise enjoy.
AnonNovember 3, 2022 10:39 am
The issue may come down to the interpretation of “pay fairly.”
Careful there, as some would posit that digital goods — not being limited in nature (that is, one can duplicate at de minimis cost), should be FREE to all, and thus, ANY pay is more than fair.
That some want to take a different standard and want to create a sustainable living from the creation (have the job as opposed to vocation as an artist) also may be challenged as conflating a desire no longer ‘fit’ to the digital nature of the goods.
In a somewhat odd sense, this line of reasoning may presage the Star Trek replicator of the future condition in which any and all hard goods can be summoned at a mere statement, and the (original) Star Trek notion of ‘plenty’ had opened up an entirely different society. I do note that this original philosophy is no longer canon, so do not be offended, aficionado’s of the genre.
Bruce BermanNovember 2, 2022 12:18 pm
Singer-songwriter Lowery says he doesn’t want Spotify, YouTube and other streaming services and content aggregators to disappear – he simply wants them to pay fairly for what they use.
Lowery is famous for an NPR interview in which he says, “Meet the new [music] boss, worse than the old boss.”